When the Mayflower dropped anchor in what’s known today as Boston Harbor, the Captain and the expedition leaders knew they were hundreds of miles north of the piece of territory upon which they had been granted a Royal patent for settlement rights. In addition to the approach of winter and stormy weather there was one driving reason they decided to go ashore. The wind-driven ship was nearly out of apple cyder, countless casks of which had been consumed during the much-delayed journey.
In the 17th century no sensible person endangered themselves by drinking water, the source it was believed, of virtually every disease and illness known to a plague-conscious society. The only safe drink for travelers was apple juice which had been allowed to ferment into a stable liquid, similar to a wine. From infants to the elderly, it is safe to assume that everyone got to enjoy a modest “buzz” every day.
The people coming ashore from the good ship Mayflower were English to the core, and unsure just what they would find growing here naturally, they brought bulbs and seeds and their long traditions with them; and of course they brought many apple pips (that’s seeds) from home.
Now right here there are some very important things to know about the genetics of apple trees, the first and most important thing being that while the seed of a tree is likely to yield a tree which in 5- 10 years will produce apples, they will not be those of its parent tree. The only way to insure a continuation of an apple variety is by grafting a piece of living membrane – a scion – onto another root stock. The seeds that a succession of colonists brought with them to the new world took root wherever they were planted or dropped, whether in planned orchards or elsewhere. Horses, livestock and black bears shared a love for apples, and so their droppings were left far and wide leaving a trail of young apple seedlings as they went – especially along paths that became roadways and “turnpikes”. And now “chance” takes a hand, because every now and then Mother Nature looks kindly upon a certain seedling and something wonderful happens!
This occurred recently in the British Columbia orchard of Sally and Wilfred Mennell, growers of the popular Jonagold apple. They became suspicious when they noted that the hired pickers seemed always to empty one particular tree for their own fruit before taking on the regular harvesting order. What the Mennell’s found was lucky for all the rest of us who have come to look upon the Ambrosia as our favorite desert apple. It was a chance seedling which had serendipitously shown up in the company of new seedlings of another variety. The Mennells promptly patented and named it. (At this time of year I try never to run out of a nearby supply of this crisp, juicy, white-fleshed gem of an eating apple.) Then too, once in a while a particular tree will have a single branch which mysteriously produces an apple totally different than the rest of the tree. This accident of genetics will be known as a sport, from which cuttings will faithfully continue to reproduce something unexpected and wonderful.
A Wisconsin Heirloom known as the "Wolf River" is so large 2 can make 1 apple pie!
Beginning in the 1790s, as western migration heated up, millions of apple seeds traveled west with settlers, and with the help of a man named John Chapman of Pennsylvania who appeared to be on a “mission”. Known as “Johnny Appleseed” and pictured in mythical picture book art trudging along with a
bulging sack over his shoulders distributing his pomological burden as he went. Chapman was real, but his work was not some manifestation of altruism run amok. When The Ohio Company opened up its promising welcome gates to pioneer families it offered 100 acres of homestead land to those who met the requirements: establish an orchard of fifty apple trees and twenty peaches. Johnny Appleseed surveyed then planted “nurseries” throughout the region, selling 2-3-year old fruit trees to the settlers following after him, thus providing a substantial head start to people who were happy to reward him. And if you’re wondering why Chapman didn’t plant rootstock instead of just seeds, you need to understand that he was a member of the Swedenborgian Church which forbid the practice of grafting.In closing, I must point to the temperance movement and the coming of prohibition in October, 1919 as nearly a death knell for U.S. appledom. Government agents cut down or burned hundreds of thousands
of acres of orchards across the country; they saw every growing apple tree as a source of alcohol, even if growing on private property!!